Bright Club: Educate, Entertain & Inform!

So my stand up routine has been available for a wee while now and, so far, the reviews are good. Thanks for all the positive comments everyone. And while I’m now well on my way to international stardom, I thought I’d better take some time to clarify a couple of things, before I jet off for cocktails at the Ritz with Brad & Angelina.

The main query I’ve received regarding the performance could be summarised as, “Stand up? Huh? What the hell was THAT all about?” And the other main question I’ve been asked is, “I’ve never heard of the Bright Club, where is it?”

So, first off, Bright Club isn’t a venue – it isn’t a club in that sense. The word “club”, in this context, is the other meaning, ie. “a society, or association with a shared interest, or taking part in a shared activity”. That’s what Bright Club is – a group of people with the same aim, to try and engage with and educate the public about academic research in an entertaining way.

All of us involved in research, regardless of the discipline, have to think about something called “Impact”. Impact is the word that is used to describe the various ways that researchers are expected to release the results of their work into the world. Now, this is relatively easy to do within your own discipline. You can write research papers for publication in specialised journals that other researchers read. You can give lectures & seminars to colleagues. You can go to a conference about your subject and either speak about your work or take along a poster that other researchers can look at. This is the kind of thing that researchers have been doing for decades.

But while this works well for spreading knowledge within your own area, it is less useful for informing the general public. For a long time, those of us engaged in academic research have struggled with the disconnect between what we actually do, and the public perception of what we do.

The popular stereotype of an academic, is of someone who spends their time pondering some unfathomable (and probably pointless) subject, who is out of touch with the real world and is probably wearing a big black robe. For an example of this peculiar specimen, watch pretty much any episode of Inspector Morse.

Those of us who work in science have a slightly different stereotype to put up with, that of the socially inept loner, who doesn’t consider the consequences of their experiments and is probably Meddling With Forces Beyond Their Control. Pretty much every scientist ever featured in a movie or TV show conforms to some or all of this stereotype.

Both of these are nonsense, of course. Academics and researchers are just like everybody else. We’re not detached from the real world at all.  We watch the same telly programs, we go to the same pubs, we go to the football… You name it. And of course we think about the consequences of our work.  We have to.  We are constantly having to justify ourselves and demonstrate that we’ve considered the relevance and ethical issues. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t get our work funded and our departments wouldn’t give their consent, so we wouldn’t be allowed to continue.

But these stereotypes exist for a reason, namely that we have been rubbish at explaining what we do, and why we do it. Hence the increasing importance of “Public Engagement” activities, to try and improve the general understanding of research and academic work. One approach is to have open days, where the public is invited in to talk to researchers and see examples of their work.

And another way of approaching this should be obvious – blogging. Yes! That’s right! By reading this blog, you are unwittingly taking part in a Public Engagement exercise! This blog is, basically, my attempt to explain the concepts behind my area – cancer research – to a general audience.

Well, Bright Club is another type of Public Engagement event. The basic concept is that researchers use comedy to try and get their ideas across, as a general audience will find the subject less ponderous and are more likely to engage with it, if they find it entertaining. Bright Club originated at University College London in 2009 and was very successful. Other universities in other cities quickly caught on to the potential of this idea, and Bright Clubs started springing up across the UK. Shows are put on regularly, with a number of researchers performing.

All of the performers are amateurs and the subjects cover a variety of disciplines, from political history to quantum physics. The performers may not all have my natural magnifi-brilliance (or my modest nature), but the shows are a lot of fun and are well worth checking out.

So, I’d urge you all to keep an eye out because, wherever you are, there’s probably a Bright Club show taking place nearby soon. If so, go along. You won’t regret it – and you might just learn something new!

AG McCluskey (2015). Bright Club: Educate, Entertain & Inform! Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


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